The Jump Jet Retires - Why The Sea Harrier Was Special For Naval Aviation

by Vishal Kansagra - May 15, 2016 10:41 AM +05:30 IST
The Jump Jet Retires - Why The Sea Harrier Was Special For Naval AviationAn Indian Navy Sea Harrier Taxes From INS Virat
  • 11 May 2016 marked the last flight of the small and nimble Sea Harrier ‘jump jet’.

    It was the end of an era not only for Indian Navy but also for military aviation.

    Here is a look at the development and service of the Harrier jump jet in the Indian and international navies.

During the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as a potent weapon that could allow any navy to project power over great distances. Later on during the Cold War, the US and the UK were major powers fielding aircraft carriers.

One of the biggest technical challenges in operating carriers was to launch and land aircrafts from a very tiny deck on the carrier. Typically aircraft were launched from carriers using a device called the catapult, which pretty much works like a, well, catapult. The aircraft carrier’s catapult is operated using steam and is bulky - thereby increasing the size of a carrier.

While the US had nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the UK and other carrier builders relied on diesel powered propulsion. This imposed restrictions in terms of the deck length and maximum take-off weight of aircraft operating on the carrier.

One solution to this problem was to use an aircraft that could take off vertically or with a very short take-off run. Such an aircraft would be useful on the deck of an aircraft carrier as well on smaller airfields providing great operational and tactical flexibility as well as survivability in case of war with Warsaw Pact nations.

A British Royal Navy Sea Harrier comes in to land vertically.
A British Royal Navy Sea Harrier comes in to land vertically.

Hawker Siddeley, a British aircraft company which later became part of British Aerospace (BAe), took up this challenge to build a Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing (V/STOL) aircraft for the UK. The company is famous for designing and manufacturing some legendary aircrafts like HS.748, Nimrod, Hawk, Buccaneer, Hunter, Gnat, Harrier and many others. Out of these a number of aircraft types served and are still serving in the Indian armed forces.

Although most of their aircraft were Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) types, Hawker Siddeley started work on a V/STOL aircraft called P.1127. It was designed around the ‘Pegasus’ engine to meet NATO requirements for Light Tactical Support Fighter. Hawker Siddeley managed this project mostly on internal funding as well as with some money from the US. Simultaneously, they were working on another prototype called P.1154. It was essentially a twin engine version of P.1127 capable of better payload and overall performance.

Designing a VTOL aircraft with the ability vector/change its engine exhaust direction i.e. vectored thrust is a highly challenging task. Even with huge funds, talent and cutting edge CAD/CAM software at disposal, the F-35B had a very long development time along with troubles getting operational. Imagine Hawker Siddeley doing all that in the 1960s.

VTOL flight also poses a lot of challenges related to stability and control systems. Moreover, a single engine jet would need to lift aircraft vertically as well as push it forward. While other aircrafts like Short SC.1 had dedicated engines for vertical and horizontal flight, P.1127 had to rely on just one engine for both.

There were lots of ups and downs in the project resulting from defence budget cuts and contemporary line of thinking that days of manned fighters were numbered. These assumptions lead to cancellation of P.1154 project but luckily P.1127 survived. It is amusing how this line of thought rises like a Phoenix decade after decade. In the present and near future, nothing would beat a well-trained aviator inside the cockpit of a sleek jet.

Hawker Siddeley’s persistence paid off. The first free flight hover was achieved on 19 November 1960 with first vertical take-off and flight performed on 8 September 1961. Finally, the fifth prototype of P.1127 would become the first prototype of Kestrel, which with better engines eventually became the prototype for the Harrier jump jets.

Indian service

The Indian Navy selected ex-HMS Hercules, a World War Two era carrier from Britain, once the government OKed the idea of combat naval aviation. Commissioned in Indian Navy as INS Vikrant, it had an air wing composed of Hawker Sea Hawk Mk 6.

The aicraft were first inducted into INAS 300 “White Tigers” squadron - the first aviation squadron of Indian Navy. Subsequently, a total of 54 Sea Hawk served with Indian Navy.

The White Tigers stood true to their moniker in 1971 by attacking and destroying military targets in erstwhile East Pakistan. The carrier INS Vikrant ensured a complete blockade of East Pakistan preventing any military aid coming in or elements of Pakistan Army fleeing through the sea. By the end of the war the White Tigers had not lost a single aircraft to enemy fire. The White Tigers were awarded one Maha Vir Chakra, five Vir Chakras, one Nao Sena Medal and four Mentions in Despatches for services during the 1971 conflict.

By the late 70s, the Sea Hawk was getting long in the tooth. The Indian Navy zeroed in on the VTOL Sea Harrier. The Sea Harrier was a naval version of the Harrier jump jet. The initial order for 6 operational fighters and 2 trainers was placed in 1979. Later on, the total number of Sea Harrier reached 31 including trainers and operational aircraft.

Falkland War

While Indian crews were working hard to master various aspects of maintenance and combat flying on the Harrier jump jets, Argentina invaded the Falkland islands. These islands were British territory leading to a declaration of war between UK and Argentina.

Considering the geography and distances involved, this was a tough operation. The UK sent two aircraft carriers -HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible - with Sea Harriers and Harrier GR.3. The Harrier boys did a great job and it was summed up in these words of Margaret Thatcher:

“Without the Harriers ... using the latest version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile supplied by Caspar Weinberger, we could not have retaken the Falklands”

The Indian Navy team in the UK followed the Falklands war closely not only to gauge the effectiveness of their compatriots but also to gauge the performance of birds they were supposed to operate in near future.

Apart from the Sea Harrier, there was one more link connecting India to the Falkland war. HMS Hermes, one of the two aircraft carriers Britain deployed against Argentina, would soon be flying the Indian tricolour and would be called INS Viraat.

Sea Harrier with INAS 300 White Tigers

The Sea Harrier, which began service in the Indian navy in 1983 as part of the White Tigers squadron, was nimble and could operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier or smaller airfield easily, thanks to its swiveling nozzles. Moreover, its small size ensured that it was hard to spot from a distance. Normal operating procedure was for short take-off but vertical landing. Vertical take-off looks grand, but would enforce heavy penalties in terms of payload and fuel carriage.

An Indian navy Sea Harrier on the deck of INS Virat.
An Indian navy Sea Harrier on the deck of INS Virat.

On the flip side, the Sea Harrier lacked a radar due to the smaller nose section. The aircraft could only carry around 3,000 kg of armaments which was considered mediocre. Moreover due to lack of In-flight Refueling equipment, the Sea Harrier had a limited range. The engine thrust reduced substantially in hot weather.

Rough Path

As time passed, problems started cropping up. The Sea Harrier was very tricky to fly due to its unique design. It was tough for any pilot to qualify for it let alone master it. Unusually high number of crashes that struck USMC, British air units and Indian Navy may be due to various reasons but eventually, it led to huge concerns about the aircraft in question. The Royal Navy decommissioned its fleet of Sea Harrier in 2006.

The White Tigers lost 16 Sea Harrier by 2007 bringing total strength to 15 aircraft. To maintain operational numbers, Indian Navy had shown interest in Sea Harrier FA2 decommissioned by the Royal Navy. Discussions fell through due to the cost of refurbishing. To make the most of the airframes in service, Indian Navy initiated an upgrade - they put Israeli radars and made it possible for the Sea Harrier to fire Rafael Derby air to air missiles

The situation became worse in 2009 with just 12 surviving aircraft. The entire Sea Harrier fleet had to be grounded in August 2009 due to accidents and risks. The glorious INAS 300 White Tigers squadron was going through its worst phase with seven lives lost in various crashes since induction of Sea Harrier.

Finally, on 11 May 2016, the Sea Harriers of the White Tigers flew their last. With its final flight ended a great era in military aviation. It was an emotional moment for many including this writer. All said and done, the Sea Harrier was an amazing aircraft and its watch should not have ended like this.

During its lifespan, the Sea Harrier and its cousins saw active duty across the globe under various flags. Their performance was decent if we ignore crashes due to a multitude of reasons. The legacy of this beautiful jump jet would be carried forward by F-35B in Royal Navy as well as US Marine Corps.

The Indian Navy, in the meanwhile, has acquired ex-Admiral Gorshkov, now rechristened as INS Vikramaditya. The MiG-29K will now be the successor of the Sea Harrier jump jet. The Navy and naval aviation enthusiasts are looking forward to the naval version of Tejas. It is already judged as one of most beautiful looking planes - just how well it would perform needs will have to be seen.

The INAS 300 White Tigers will soon be fully operational again with the Russian MiG-29K but they will miss the Sea Harrier quite a bit.

Farmer, businessman and ex-journalist. RKBA supporter. Sustainability, national security and development are some of my favourite topics

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.